This blog was originally posted in October 2010
The murder of Police Constables Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes in Greater Manchester was a terribly tragic event. Emotions always run high when a police officer is killed in the line of duty and often results in a call for the reinstallation of the death penalty or the overt arming of all police officers.
This blog is a comment on the call for police officers to be routinely armed. The call for this to happen has been especially loud from police officers. I believe that there are four principle reasons that mean we will not see our police officers routinely and overtly armed.
Sir Robert Peel made a conscious decision not to arm the police: he wanted police to create a relationship with the public that would help in their mission to prevent crime and he did not want the Metropolitan Police to have any resemblance to the French Gendarmerie who were viewed as too militaristic. This situation remained unchanged up until the 1990s when many forces introduced Armed Response Vehicles to deal with incidents in which there was a threat to life by someone who had a weapon (note this does not just include a firearm). Nowadays it is accepted that armed police will be seen at airports, most major events or high security incidents. This seems to be a practice that has been accepted by the British public and was strengthened following the terrorist incidents that took place in the early 2000s.
However, the routine arming of all police officers is a wholly different matter. The stance from ACPO is that the police do not wish to be armed. They may not speak for the rank and file, but during the time that I was a police officer it was certainly the case that police did not want to be armed. Police officers that I have recently to spoken concur with this view. But perhaps that situation is academic. The question needs to be asked of the public themselves. The police are public servants, and as such, their social contract with the public needs to direct policy. Surely the only question that needs to be asked is “do you want all police officers to carry a firearm as part of their general duty?” If the answer to that is “no”‘ and I believe that it would be, then there are no further questions to be asked. The police cannot routinely arm themselves without the acceptance of citizens.
This is clearly a very emotive subject whatever your viewpoint. But it’s also a political and financial issue. Imagine the cost of purchasing a firearm and ancillary equipment for every police officer and add to that the cost of training and re-qualification. The cost in financial and political terms would be prohibitive – which government would want to be labelled ‘the government that spent millions arming the police?’
This issue relates to the administrative and emotional cost should a police officer shoot a member of the public. I was privileged to see an excellent presentation from a Metropolitan Police officer who shot and killed a member of the public who he believed to be carrying a shotgun. In this instance a prosecution process was commenced against the officer. Detailed investigations took place over many years before the officer was exonerated. It is rare that armed police officers in the UK fire their weapons, but when they do the chain of events that follow, in terms of an investigation, are lengthy and stressful for all concerned.
I am fortunate enough to be able to travel to different parts of the world and speak on a variety of aspects of policing. I can say without doubt that British Policing is the envy of the world. UK policing has a very special brand that is supported by the vast majority of the population. To have our police officers and PCSOs protect society in this modern age armed only with a baton, handcuffs and in some instances non-lethal weapon such as Taser, is a precious commodity that we should cherish and protect at all costs.
It is somewhat ironic that this week has seen the 30th anniversary of the death of PC Mandy Rayner (18), the first and youngest police woman to be killed in the line of duty. We should mourn the death of Nicola and Fiona and all of the other police officers who have fallen in the line of duty and we should take the opportunity to count our blessings that we have a police system of such high reputation. But we should also learn from such terrible events and do all that we can to prevent them from happening again.